Yesterday, I attended a “virtual town hall” meeting with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (my Congresswoman) and Jamaal Bowman, who represents the neighbouring constituency (I need to find out why they didn’t share the platform with Representative Ritchie Torres from the adjoining 15th Congressional District). All three are associated with the ascendant generation of politicians shaking up the Democratic Party and national politics.
I’m not sure if AOC was planning the event before I moved in to the area, but I was quite impressed. She has spoken about the importance of using social media to connect with voters and this was a slick operation (although it looks like only about 3,500 people were viewing, from a population of over a million). She has a charming, unpretentious personality that has obvious appeal, particularly when combined with some genuinely radical policy positions.
But it was clear that both Ocasio-Cortez and Bowman were feeling a bit spooked by Tuesday’s primary elections. Although the final result won’t be known for a few weeks, it appears that Eric Adams is on course to win the Democratic Party’s nomination for New York City (NYC) Mayor. Adams based his campaign on being a working class African-American, but also the “law and order” candidate, for which he invokes his history as an NYPD cop.
Although it is nowhere near the scale of the late 1970s/early 1980s, NYC has seen a significant spike in violent crime during the pandemic and as it tries to emerge, this issue appears to be shaping the political mood.
Eric Adams is no radical. As well as being a former cop, he’s a landlord and a vocal supporter of privatised Charter schools. But he received a huge proportion of first-preference votes in the Bronx on Tuesday, with the assumption that this is based on his commitment to increase spending on the police, in direct opposition to the “defund” demands of #BlackLivesMatter, supported by Ocasio=Cortez and Bowman.
It felt like last night’s town hall was being used primarily to refute any suggestion of being “soft on crime”, a straw man that many leftist politicians have taken aim at in the past. Ocasio-Cortez and Bowman did it quite well, pointing out that bigger spending on policing doesn’t corelate with crime reduction and that the NYPD’s $11 billion annual budget has not ended the “school to prison pipeline”. AOC was particularly good in pointing out the class and ethnic profiling in policing, recalling seeing a young man being stopped, searched and criminalised for carrying a small amount of marijuana in Parkchester, the Bronx, while the same substance was being openly smoked, with police looking-on, in trendy Union Square.
But there was also a worrying defensiveness about the meeting. Although both politicians talked about the wider social issues behind violent crime, particularly mental health, they were less strong on the socio-economic inequality that has been magnified by COVID. It was particularly disappointing that neither made any mention of housing, this in the week when 2.3 million NYC tenants were handed a rent hike and there’s a looming threat that hundreds of thousands could face losing their home when eviction proceedings resume (currently due to happen at the end of August).
Once again, even the best politicians seem unable to recognise or articulate, the elemental, existential importance of housing for working class communities. I felt quite at home!